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September 12, 2006
Higher education at a crossroads

by Shirley Ort


I graduated from a rural high school in Michigan, never expecting to go to college. My family simply did not have the means.

That changed when Mr. Reynolds, my high school principal, knocked on our door a few weeks after graduation with a college application in hand. "Don't worry if you don't have money," he told me. "If they accept you, they will find a way to help you stay there."

With that push, my life changed.

Fast forward to 2006. I'm in Chapel Hill and am UNC's associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid. There is no university in this country where I'd rather be.

Why? Because this university has made a real commitment to need-based aid - to keeping a Carolina education both accessible and affordable.

In 2003, we created the Carolina Covenant to ensure that low-income students who are accepted to Carolina can get a degree here without incurring debt. The program has been emulated by a host of other universities, public and private. Last year, we opened a new access route to Carolina when the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation selected us to participate in a national program that helps community college students earn UNC degrees after completing two years at a community college. Students from Alamance, Durham Tech and Wake Tech community colleges will benefit directly from this program.

And beginning today, Carolina will host a three-day, national conference, "The Politics of Inclusion: Higher Education at a Crossroads," to explore issues of affordability and accessibility.

Over the next few days, 150 state and federal policy makers, lawmakers, economists, researchers, business leaders, educators and foundation representatives will convene here to consider how politics, policy and practice determine who gets to go to college and where and how they pay for it.

Given the growing number of low-income youth in America, the issue of access to higher education is approaching a national crisis. And that's at the same time that this country's need for a highly-trained, well-educated workforce has never been greater.
We have received funding from five conference sponsors: the Lumina Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and the College Foundation of North Carolina.
A range of featured speakers will challenge conference participants to contribute their expertise to these issues, learn from each other and formulate proposed solutions and action steps that will shape a leadership agenda for the future.
Panelists will tackle topics including the changing demographics of American higher education; economic, political and social objectives of higher education in the 21st century; the politics of who goes to college and where; challenges threatening access to college; and new ways to foster access and inclusion. Specific issues will include rising college costs, illegal immigrant children and admissions preferences.
The final day of the conference will focus on recently created programs within higher education that target high-achieving students from low-income families.

While espousing the principles of access, equity and equal opportunity for low-income students, most institutions are offering increasing amounts of non-need-based aid to lure more full-paying middle- and upper-middle income students. Increasingly, universities construct financial aid packages that will better position them in the marketplace, often with secondary regard to furthering educational opportunity.

This is all happening in an era of widening inequalities, and the economic stakes of getting a college degree are higher than ever. Figures from 2004 show that only 44 percent of low-income students who score in the top quartile academically attend a four-year college. Few low-income students can afford college without meaningful offers of grant and scholarship support.

At Carolina, we believe that higher education institutions - and especially public universities - have a special obligation to help solve the access problem. There's a social compact between public institutions and society - public institutions are publicly funded. Private institutions (as well as public institutions) enjoy tax-exempt status and other tax breaks. With these benefits, I would argue, comes a moral obligation to act for the public good, not just for institutional gain.

The Carolina Covenant is this University's promise to all students who work hard, make the grade and earn the opportunity to attend Carolina. It's our promise that their family's income will not stand in the way of their education.

And it reaches directly into this community. Some of the more than 900 Covenant Scholars enrolled this fall come from right here in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and the surrounding counties.

My sincere hope is that the advocates for access will continue to find their voices on the campuses across America, and speak for those students who cannot speak for themselves, particularly when negotiating for increased federal and state investment, and for responsible use of institutional resources.

In short, we need to change the politics of exclusion into the politics of inclusion. This week's conference in Chapel Hill is a significant step in that direction.

Shirley Ort is associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She lives in Chapel Hill and can be reached at To learn more about this week's conference, visit


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